Saturday, January 17, 2015

Noblesse Ne'er-Do-Wells

Several years back the red shirts of Bangkok targeted the shopping malls of their political rivals, the yellow shirts. The drama between the two groups was a mystery to most foreigners, yet understood by the majority of Thais as a struggle between the ruling cliques of the Land of Smiles. I googled 'thailand five families rule' and the search engine offered thousands of five-star hotel rooms without a single url leading to information on the hi-so families of Thailand. A second attempt on Thai hierarchy revealed little of the ancient class structure other than saying that the King ruled over all Thais.

He was the one pure Thai and his family was deemed second followed by lesser nobility and then monks. Social status retreated from this monolith according to income, occupation, education, age, connections, and family, which is why Thais were inadvertently curious about farang life in the West.

"Are you hi-so ( high society) or lo-so (low society)?"

Twenty years go I was befriended by an aged female member of the royalty. Anana liked me because I knew New Paltz. She had attended the teaching college there in the 40s. The 70 year-old had a school in Yala. I was one of the few westerners in that town.

"Why are you here?"

"I'm a writer. It's quiet and out of the way." Yala back then was peaceful.

"Too quiet." Anana assumed most men were in Thailand for women.

"I like quiet."

"No feend?"

"Mai mii."

I didn't have a girlfriend in the provincial city.

Anana accepted my answer as a half-truth and asked if I wanted to drive her to Chiang Mai. Yala to Chiang Mai was a long way, but I was game for a road trip. We took off in her BMW and stopped at temples along the way. The monks greeted her with deference and greeted me as if I were part of her family. It wasn't until we visited Songkla for a seafood dinner that I noticed how high was her placement on the social ladder.

We entered the airy restaurant without any fanfare, but the owner immediately fell to his knees. The rest of his staff followed suit as did the diners. We walked through the dining area to a table vacated by the previous guests. We sat and Anana signaled everyone to rise.

"Now you see why I like you. You greet me like a normal person. I only wish that Thais could do the same."

We had a delightful meal during which she discussed THE KING AND I at length.

"No one in Thailand has seen this film. It's too much fun and the king is not fun. At least that's the way the Thai people think of their father."

And with good reason.

The King had presided over the rise of his country from a 3rd World pit stop to an economic miracle, however the riches reaped by the nouveau elite have challenged the old ways.

Several years ago I was at a golf range in Pattaya and the Thai pro asked if I could move to another slot. I could tell the request hadn't come from him and turned around to see several Mercedes parked behind us. Their occupants were dressed in the height of shopping mall splendor. I was wearing Celtic green.

"Tell them to wait a few minutes." I only had five balls left in my basket.

"They want you go now." The Thai pro didn't look in the direction of the parking lot.

"Really." I waved to them that I'd only be a few minutes.

Their eyes bulged in their sockets.

One of them came up to me and said in good English, "Do you know who we are?"

"I suspect you come from good families and as such will extend the good manners of your class to an older guest of your country. Thank you."

I teed my ball and duffed my drive.

They laughed at my shot and the next one went about 50 yards before burrowing into the grass. My third and fourth attempts flew left and right about 200 yards.

More laughter and I placed the final ball on the tee. I pointed at the distant 300 yard marker. I concentrated on the ball, the air, and my target and swung with all my might. The ball launched into the air about 200 yards and fell straight down 100 yards from the driving platform.

More laughter.

I shrugged to the Thai pro and tipped him 200 baht.

I waved to the Mercedes mob and got on my motorcycle to drive home.

Not a King, but a master of a bad swing.

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